Britney's tube sock! Nelly to the rescue! Pop and rock and rap, together!

By Darren Franich
February 05, 2021 at 12:04 PM EST
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Credit: JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

Lost forever is the brief national mood at the turn of the century, between Y2K and the wars to come, when things were big and decadent and less obviously broken. The 2001 Super Bowl halftime show is a memory box for that missing moment. The event is best remembered for its last song, a "Walk This Way" medley crossing genres and music eras. Those closing minutes are awesome enough to make this my favorite halftime show, though the competition isn't as fierce as it should be (beyond, of course, Sasha Fierce). For awhile there, the mid-game music showcase became a stopover for boomer legacy artists playing the hits. Lately it feels like where superstars on the edge of a professional midlife crisis go to beta-test a Vegas residency. I'm sure The Weeknd will be fine on Sunday. But it's hard to recapture the absurd confidence of the 2001 show's opening, originally broadcast everywhere 20 years ago, when a few thousand people chase NSYNC onstage so they can sing "Bye Bye Bye."

This was all happening in Florida, of course, mere weeks after the state's world-shifting electoral controversy. That (actual?) steal wasn't stopped. But pop culture back then was like football back then: Apolitical if you liked it, conservative if you didn't. The halftime performance is really all about the guest-stars — more on them soon — but it's mainly structured as a duel between the boy band and Aerosmith. The latter steps up with "I Don't Want to Miss A Thing," the song about loving your daughter so much you want to punch meteors with your America-shaped fist. NSYNC bounces back with "It's Gonna Be Me." Aerosmith retorts with "Jaded."

This was NSYNC's pinnacle, a year out from the record-breaking No Strings Attached. Like every popular young human male of the time, their clothes are so large that — to the modern eye — they seem to be wearing an extra half of themselves. The dance moves are charmingly attainable: unison knee bends, fists pumping into dice-rolls. Any volleyball team could nail this in a few hours. And Steven Tyler is already deep into his substitute art teacher phase, with a scarf that says "I don't care" and a dark coat that whispers "I vant to suck your blood." Eventually, he disrobes into a yellow jersey with "TYLER" printed on the back. Wearing personalized sports uniforms emblazoned with your own name wasn't actually a 2000s fashion trend. It could have been, though; it makes as much sense as Von Dutch.

In the very entertaining behind-the-scenes documentary about the 2001 halftime show, Charlie's Angels director McG appears wearing a leather jacket and Fred Durst's goatee. Those last 13 words almost sound like a Y2K parody — and then McG describes the NSYNC-Aerosmith alliance as "the world's biggest pop supergroup and the world's most kickass rock and roll band." This was the kind of mass messaging MTV could peddle before the internet ate the network's lunch forever. Biggest! Most! Monoculture, hoorah! There were metrics to back up the braggadocio — there were metrics back then! — and MTV was producing this halftime show, which explains a lot of creative decisions. McG actually directed an introductory comedy video, where the musicians play themselves and Ben Stiller plays a jerk. It's a very Movie Awards-ish concept, promoted up from cable to the biggest media league of all.

There's no whiff of generational animosity. NSYNC loves Aerosmith and Aerosmith loves NSYNC. It's a brave new millennium and grunge has been vanquished: No need to discuss things like authenticity! And look, this whole guy crew vs. guy crew showdown? It's fine. At one point, Justin Timberlake fires sparks out of his wrists. Right as "Jaded" ends, Chris Kirkpatrick taps on Tyler's back, "distracting" the frontman — which leaves Timberlake free steal Tyler's mic for a climactic "I'M THE ONE THAT JADED YOU!"

"Man, this is way too white for me!" says Chris Rock. "We gotta get some hip-hop up in here!" Accurate critique, though that line actually comes from the comedy prologue— and in that minute-and-a-half video, Rock appears for seven seconds. That is not the precise ratio of time the concert allows for Nelly and Mary J. Blige, but their late arrival alongside Britney Spears for the final "Walk This Way" number is the true stuff of legend, and a sign of less white dudely things to come. MTV envisioned this performance as a cross-genre union, but the focus is on rock and pop, with a spoonful of hip-hop at the very end. Viewed from 2021, the racial calculus looks embarrassing, but it's just as wild to imagine when rock was the altar of worship and rap was the afterthought. Another guitar band might headline the Super Bowl halftime show in my lifetime, but I don't know. Was Adam Levine stripping down to his yoga pecs the day the music died?

Tyler doesn't do anything that awful in the 2001 show, but his flailing has a whiff of midlife desperation: Multiple costume changes, a wink-y performance that embraces self-parody as a survival strategy. One cut says it all. The camera follows Tyler, now rocking a hippie shirt, marching like he's a frontman robot someone just wound up. We see a master shot from high in the sky— and then there's Spears, hips see-saw swingin' in side-striped white pants, long sock covering her right arm, squeezed into an Aerosmith shirt that looks like what happens to Bruce Banner's clothes when he turns into the Hulk.

Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Sorry sorry: A sock on her right arm? I don't even remember registering the strangeness of that on first viewing, and it's the most culturally memorable thing about the entire event. Spears had reality distortion-level stardom at that point in history. When she blows a kiss onto Tyler's cheek, he looks young again — and not the fake kind of youth rock bands role-play into their obsolescence. She pretty much takes over "Walk This Way." Blige gets a major introduction, walking casually while three NSYNCers flank her with the Newsie version of a "cool" walk, blech. She never quite gets a focal moment again. Meanwhile, Spears, Timberlake, and Kirkpatrick stroll down the stage, and I guess you could say Britney's then-boyfriend has moments that point toward his solo stardom. I dunno. Timberlake doing Aerosmith looks like a fun guy goofing off at karaoke. She does a single head-bang to punctuate his solo, and that gesture carries more pure rock and roll fire than anything else in the show.

Tyler puts his arm around Blige as they share a microphone, and Joey Fatone jumps with Ray Tabano (or maybe Brad Whitford), and the Spears-Timberlake-Kirkpatrick coalition stares really intensely at Joe Perry's guitar. We've descended from tight choreography into end-of-the-night pub singalong — and then Nelly runs out, stealing everyone's spotlight for a sliced-in verse from "E.I." It is awesome. Suddenly anything can happen. The stage looks too small for everyone, and the camera seems to be struggling to hold all this together: youth, age, swag, twang, sexiness, cuteness, elders, teenyboppers, Country Grammar. The shambles is marvelous — and then Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, Nelly, and NSYNC line-dance with Aerosmith. The ridiculous party was about to end, but it was a party.

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